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Spies in Disguise

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For all the bonkers tomfoolery endured by Ethan Hunt, transforming into a fast-talking pigeon with a bow tie imprint emblazoned upon his chest is perhaps too overwhelming of a mission for a spy who has successfully gone knuckle-to-knuckle with Superman [aka Henry Cavill’s August Walker in Mission Impossible – Fallout].

Paying homage to spy flicks with a stunning blend of geometric animation and a feverishly high-energy hip-hop soundtrack, Blue Sky Studios’ action-comedy Spies in Disguise sets out on a mission to reinvigorate with a refreshing message of pacifism.

When a mysterious bionic villain (Ben Mendelsohn delivering on the menace with an Australian accent like nobody’s business) with a legion of killer drones threatens to wreak widespread havoc, the world’s greatest super spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) reluctantly enlists the help of Walter Beckett (Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland), a clumsy young scientist whose go-to is peaceful resolution to conflict over Sterling’s blow them up mentality.

Hijinks ensue, with Sterling and Beckett going on a globe-trotting adventure to nab their perp and prevent global destruction. All this occurs while Sterling, following an experiment turned fowl (sorry), must navigate the mission as a blue pigeon with almost 360-degree vision; taking Sterling from 007 to double-o-avian (not apologising for that one).

Not even James Bond could match Sterling in the suave department, let alone command the respect he does amongst his fellow spies; the delightful likes of which include Rashida Jones, Reba McEntire, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, and a scene-stealing supporting cast of colourful, peculiar pigeons.

Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who make their directorial debut, deliver on the zany premise thanks to impressive visuals, high-octane action, humour, and strong performances from the voice cast – Holland being a standout – who are in tune with the themes of compassion and understanding at the core of the film.

Like a tailored jet-black tuxedo with an accompanying bow tie to match, the message of non-violent conflict resolution at the centre of Spies in Disguise proves a stylish fit for a new era of animated filmmaking.

 
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The Addams Family

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

In a time where an opulent ice-Queen with a penchant for show-tunes threatens to dominate the holiday box-office, Universal Pictures’ modestly grim and surprisingly sweet reboot of The Addams Family stands out across a slew of family-friendly movies like a goth student in a school class photo.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, of Sausage Party fame, bring the Addams family and their twisted sense of humour out of the crypt and into the twenty-first century.

The film follows the Addams’ and their contact with a neighbouring town, known as Assimilation, who are hell-bent on removing the supernatural family from their perfectly manicured community. The figurehead of Assimilation is a ruthless interior designer named Margaux, portrayed with devilish moxie by Allison Janney. The ‘humans being bigger monsters than the actual monsters’ yada-yada is a trope as old as Dracula, but does not prove a downer on The Addams Family due to the film’s well-natured intentions.

Running in tandem to the central story are side-plots involving the Addams children; both Wednesday (a wonderfully macabre Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (no stranger to strange things Finn Wolfhard) tackling separate coming-of-age issues.

Wednesday’s desire to expand her horizons outside of her haunted residence disappoint her mother Morticia (Charlize Theron), who fears her daughter will be targeted by humans as a monster the same way she had been. On the other hand, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) helps Pugsley prepare for his upcoming Mazurka, a ceremony of sorts that will propel the boy into adulthood.

The film does a solid job converging all stories, though follows a trend from a studio that continues to develop episodic-like narratives in their family films (see A Secret Life of Pets 2). It is a trend that borders on becoming convoluted and perhaps better suited to an opt-out platform like Netflix. Vernon and Tiernan do fall guilty of introducing underdeveloped points, including the harmful effects of social media and bullying, and end up half-heartedly abandoning these notions in favour of balancing side-plots. The result skims from both stories so they may both co-exist in the film’s scant runtime.

The filmmakers are conscious of the adults in the room and pepper The Addams Family with a continuous stream of light-hearted quips that play to the family’s obliviousness. The film’s efforts to balance out deeper themes – concerning growing-up and celebrating individuality – with amusing gaffes, strikes the right tonal balance for a film with a family-friendly, finger-snapping sitcom history. This comedic responsibility extends to the tremendous cast of supporting actors, including Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Jenifer Lewis and Tituss Burgess.

Despite a history of live-action film, sitcom and 2D animated adaptations, there is an inherent freshness with The Addams Family’s introduction into the CG world. Giant trees, a murderous house, a playful pet lion: all of which come to life with eerie thrill while remaining faithful in style to the source material.

Yes, the film does bear a striking resemblance to the work of Genndy Tartakovsky a la Hotel Transylvania. Not just in visual style but in themes regarding belonging and embracing difference. Regardless, The Addams Family upholds the legacy of an endearing property with distinction and ought to inspire a renaissance in CG adaptations of spooky IP (looking at you Casper).

 
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Trailer: Pixar’s Soul

From Pete Docter, the writer/director of Pixar's most ambitious and imaginative films (Inside Out, Up, Monsters Inc.) comes another existential rumination, with voice work by Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey and Daveed Diggs.
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Abominable

animation, family film, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Abominable starts with our hero, Everest, the folkloric Yeti, escaping from a scientific facility and finding itself hiding out in downtown Shanghai. Everest soon bumps into Yi (Bennet), a grief stricken girl who dreams of travelling through China, and she gets her wish when along with two other kids they head across the vast and beautiful Chinese countryside to help Everest return home, all the while being pursued by an eccentric millionaire, scientists and commandos.

If you took a cynical reading of this latest Dreamworks animated feature, you could deduce that with the rapidly growing Chinese market for movies (it has the most cinemas of any nation, and growing, and is predicted to end 2019 as the biggest market in the world for theatrical releases, eclipsing the long-held US), that a Hollywood studio begins with an idea that will allow them to not only appeal to that market, but better still, engage their industry in working on the project for a fraction of the price that you would pay a Western crew.

Additionally, and most crucially, China limits the number of Western cinema releases seen on the big screen, so this co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio guarantees that Abominable will be released to much fanfare.

But why be cynical, when this is showbusiness after all, and better still, some of the most creative and accomplished artworks throughout history have worked on a restricted canvas, be it censorship, budget or otherwise.

The computer animation in Abominable is what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks (Croods, Trolls, Boss Baby, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), however, what is new here is the setting, with the streets of modern Shanghai and regional China, along with The Everest, offering something that we have not seen before in such a mainstream animated film, making the story in turns engrossing and wondrous. The same applies to the wholly Asian cast of characters, portrayed just like any Western character would have been, with little cultural stereotyping or clichés. The magical aspects in the film don’t quite match the transcendence of classics such as Kubo and the Two Strings – perhaps they should have considered less Coldplay and more class, but you can’t have everything.

Ultimately, the core message about leaving nature alone more than makes up for any shortcoming, and what you get is a film that reaches close to peak entertainment for kids and adults alike.

 
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Angry Birds Assemble

Producer John Cohen (right) and Director Thurop Van Orman (left) open up about The Angry Birds Movie 2, which sees the birds and pigs team up to defeat a new enemy.
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Ne Zha

animation, Asian Cinema, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The best kind of cinematic underdog stories are the ones that go beyond the borders of a cinema screen. A debut feature for its director Jiaozi and his animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon, with nary a name-brand actor in sight, Ne Zha has already become one of the biggest commercial successes for a China-born animated film.

Of course, in the era of Avatar and Disney-helmed tentpoles, monetary gains can only push a feature so far. Good thing, then, that this is the kind of production that outright demands that kind of audience pull.

For an East Asian product, the visuals are all kinds of American influenced. It has the round bounciness of Dreamworks (and, let’s be honest, the same sophomoric sense of humour in places), the lighting effects and facial expressions of Disney/Pixar, and the energetic finesse of Laika.

However, rather than feeling like a hodge-podge of familiar elements in a cynical attempt at international notoriety, all of these elements come together astoundingly well.

Everything from the quieter moments of the titular Ne zha kicking around a jianzi, to the action scenes that make Kung Fu Panda look like a test run, are rendered in stylised but highly effective fashion, making every second feel like a glorious panorama unto itself.

As for the story, it taps into regional shenmo storytelling (basically stories to do with gods and demons fighting each other) to tell the tale of Ne Zha, a child born from a demonic seed that is doomed to die at three years old from a divine lightning blast. Wielding mischievous child for all its worth, Lü Yanting imbues the title character with vibrant energy, while also selling the more emotional moments with uncanny poignancy.

And opposite him, we have Han Mao as the dragon prince Ao Bing, whose destiny is tied directly to Ne Zha, leading them both on a path that could see their world and themselves destroyed. It’s quite impressive that, even with very little dialogue, the animation is just that damn good that Ao Bing makes for the most emotionally intense character in this entire affair.

In-between the fight scenes, the jaw-dropping visuals, the familial drama and the occasional spurt of potty humour, it is at its heart a story about fate in a world where mortals rub shoulders with beings of ultimate power. It follows a similar line of thought as Eli Craig’s Little Evil in how it examines the notion of a demonic child meant to be the end of everything, and asks a simple question: Says who? It breaks down the idea of predetermined fate and turns its own cheekiness into a showing of strength and heaven-shaking defiance.

Through the use of familiar ideas and narrative tropes, both foreign and domestic, Ne Zha spins a yarn about prejudice – the mountains it creates and the sheer personal power that can shift them into the sea. And with how far Jiaozi came to create this, it’s hard not to think that he’s shattered a few mountains for himself.

 
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Trailer: The Addams Family

From the makers of Sausage Party, but don't hold that against them, here's the latest crack at the cult characters The Addams Family, which should be a financial bullseye if the box office for the Hotel Transylvania films is anything to go by.